First-Time Visitor FAQ

I’m new to meditation. When should I come?

Consult our weekly zazen (meditation) schedule and come to any period that works for you. Saturday mornings are a particularly good time for beginners as we offer zazen instruction at 8:45 a.m. This is your chance to be introduced to our meditation forms and to the basics of what we do in the zendo. Please arrive on time.

What is the zendo?

The zendo is the meditation hall. As you come through the gate, there are four main buildings on the grounds. The zendo is in the back on the left. The double wooden doors open by a sliding latch.

What’s going on in the other buildings?

Some of the spaces are apartments—Berkeley Zen Center (BZC) has five residential units. There is also an office, a kitchen, and a community room. At the back of the property, there’s a small hut used for private practice discussions with our abbot.

Where can I sit?

Inside the zendo, you’ll see rows of meditation cushions on raised platforms around the perimeter and in the middle, on a lower platform. There are also chairs, kneelers, meditation benches, and support cushions available. Most seats are open. The following seats are always reserved—the seats to the right and left of the altar, the brown cushion directly across from the entry doors, and the first two seats (closest to the altar) in the lower, inner rows. If you happen to sit in one of these seats, don’t worry, someone will direct you to an open one.

What if I arrive late?

When entering the zendo after zazen has begun, please be as quiet as possible. If there is someone at the altar or walking around with his or her palms together, this is probably a priest or senior student doing what is called the jundo, or greeting, and is part of the opening of the zendo. Stand at the door with your hands in the same palms-together position (it’s called gassho) and wait to take your seat until after three small bells are rung.

Are the morning and evening meditation periods different?

Morning meditation starts at 5:40 a.m. It consists of a 40-minute period followed by a 20-minute period and then service. Evening zazen, starting at 5:40 p.m., has just one 40-minute period followed by a short service. The opening and closing of all zazen periods is signaled with bells.

What if I can’t stay the entire period of zazen?

It’s best to sit the full period, but if for some reason you must leave the zendo, please do so mindfully and as quietly as possible.

Sitting is painful! What can I do?

Especially when you’re new, and even when you’re not, sitting zazen can hurt—a lot. Part of our practice is learning not to tighten in the presence of discomfort or pain. In general, try to be still during zazen, but if you’re in considerable pain and need to move, it’s OK to adjust your position or move to a chair or kneeling bench.

I came on a Saturday morning, and after the bell rang, people started walking slowly around the zendo. What’s that all about?

That slow walking is called kinhin, or walking meditation. At BZC, we do kinhin both indoors and outdoors. Inside the zendo, we walk in two circles—one on each side of the lower platform. Just follow the person in front of you.

I came to zazen on a weekday and the bell rang early and someone gave a talk. How can I find out when there is going to be a talk?

On most Monday mornings and some Friday afternoons, students give way-seeking-mind talks about how they came to practice or what they are currently practicing with in their lives. On most Saturdays, a teacher or senior student gives a more formal, public lecture. Scheduled talks are posted here.

I came on Saturday and a sign said “sesshin in progress.” What is sesshin?

Sesshin is a period of intensive meditation, lasting from half a day up to seven days. BZC’s calendar of sesshins and special events is published here, but the most current and accurate information may be on the bulletin board in the courtyard.

Why are people bowing to things?

Bowing is a way of expressing connection and deep respect. We bow to the altar when we enter the zendo. We bow to our cushion and away from it when we sit down and again when we get up. We do full prostrations to the altar during service.

What if I’m uncomfortable bowing?

If you have a physical limitation, please respect it and adjust accordingly. Some people feel resistance to the act of bowing: But what am I bowing to? A good question to ask! If bowing is difficult for you, try it out and see what you find.

Some people wear large, black or brown robes. Some people wear small bib-like blue or green robes. Some people don’t wear any robes. What’s the deal? What should I wear to the zendo?

The people in the “big” robes are usually ordained priests. The “small” robes are called rakusu and generally indicate that someone has been lay ordained. Many who practice at BZC do not wear robes at all. Some are long-term practitioners and some are new like you. All are welcome and part of the fabric of BZC.

Dark and muted colors are traditional in Zen. Please do not wear shorts or halter tops in the zendo—to avoid distracting others and because it’s usually quite cool in the building. Loose, comfortable clothing is best for meditation.

Where can I wear shoes and where should I go barefoot?

In bathrooms, in the kitchen, and outdoors, please wear your shoes. Take them off and store them on the shoe rack before you enter the zendo or community room.

Should I check in somewhere when I arrive?

When you walk through the gate, you are entering the temple. If you look new, especially on a Saturday, someone may greet or orient you. We often practice in silence, though, so if no one talks to you, this is not to be unfriendly! Please don’t hesitate to ask someone for help or information.

What if I’m not Buddhist?

You do not need to be a Buddhist to practice zazen.

Does it cost anything to sit?

Zazen is free and open to all. People who continue to practice at BZC are invited and encouraged to become members—dues and donations provide essential support for our practice and offerings—but membership is not required to sit zazen or join other temple activities.

I heard you serve breakfast on Saturdays. Can anyone come?

Well, the East Bay Express did report that BZC was the “Best Way to Get Mindful over Breakfast.” Our Saturday breakfasts, served in a formal style of eating in the zendo called oryoki, are wholesome and delicious. If you are new to practice and have not eaten a formal meal in the zendo, please come for the full Saturday program, starting at 6 a.m., so that you can receive orientation. You don’t need to have your own set of bowls for oryoki. At the start of each meal, we offer guest eating bowls to anyone who needs them.

Is BZC wheelchair accessible?

The zendo and the community room are both wheelchair accessible. There is one accessible parking space in front of 1933 Russell.

I have small children. Is it possible for me to bring them?

We have a growing Family Practice program, including Kidzendo for children three and up, offered about twice a month during the school year, usually on the 2nd and 4th Saturdays of the month, from 9:30 to 11:15 a.m.

Where is BZC located?

1929 Russell St. between Martin Luther King Blvd. and Milvia, near the Berkeley Bowl and the south branch of the Berkeley Public Library. Look for a small wooden sign on the black gate.

How can I get there?

We are a 5-10 minute walk from the Ashby BART station. Walk north from the station along Adeline until you reach Russell St. Turn left onto Russell and you will find BZC on the right, about halfway down the block.

Berkeley has many bike routes, including Milvia, so many people come by bicycle. There is a bike rack behind the zendo. Be sure to lock your bike and take all valuables into the zendo with you.

If you drive you may be wondering...

Where can I park?

BZC is located in a residential area. Please do not park on Russell St. in consideration of our neighbors. There is usually ample street parking available on nearby Martin Luther King Blvd., Milvia, and Oregon. Note signage for daily time restrictions and monthly street sweeping.